A Vanishing Legacy of the Last Depression in Berkeley

By Gray Brechin
Tuesday March 27, 2012 - 04:22:00 PM

An ancient cherry tree on Sacramento Street just north of the North Berkeley BART station this week is popping into its annual glorious bloom. I once thought it must have been planted by someone in the small Japanese community that left so many private Japanese gardens in the neighborhood, but a box of yellowed newspaper clippings I discovered at the Bancroft Library suggests it is yet another unmarked legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

By April of 1939, City Manager Hollis R. Thompson reported that federal stimulus programs had given Berkeley 3,243,668 man hours of work in the previous decade to leverage it out of the Great Depression. Among the tasks undertaken by the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration was the planting of 15,000 flowering fruit trees. 

An article in the Berkeley Gazette from the previous year gives a different — but still impressive — number of tree plantings. On March 3, 1938, Charles W. Cresswell, the city’s assistant superintendant of recreation, reported that approximately 8000 trees planted in parking strips throughout the city were then reaching their peak. “Thousands of visitors from surrounding communities drive through Berkeley streets every spring to enjoy the display of blossoms. A list of streets where the trees are finest has been prepared by the park division. The red flowering peach may be seen at Curtis, Bonar, Woolsey, and Gilman Streets, and Channing Way. Parking strips on Jefferson, Acton, Derby, Browning, Edith and Edwards Streets have a fine show of pink flowering peach.” Cresswell went on to list the many streets on which white plum blossoms could be seen. Thousand Oaks was a good bet to see those trees. 

Berkeley’s Civic Center was then especially notable for its flowering cherry trees. WPA laborers had planted 600 cherry trees there as well as along Adeline Street and Ashby Avenue. The trees were the gift of nurseryman K. Fujii of Berkeley. 

Few of those original fruit trees remain. Perhaps a grove of flowering cherries could be planted in front of the soon-to-be shuttered old City Hall in memory of Mr. Fujii and the forgotten WPA workers who did so much to beautify the city during the last depression that tourists came to enjoy Berkeley’s famed florescence at this time of year. 

Gray Brechin is the project scholar of the Living New Deal based at the UC Berkeley Department of Geography: http://livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu